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Cultural History of the NWHI

Early settlers

One of a number of stone ki'i, or images, that were found on Necker Island, NWHI.
One of a number of stone ki'i, or images, that were found on Necker Island, NWHI. They are remarkable in that they look more like the artwork found in central Polynesia, like the Marquesas Islands, than the art of Hawai'i. (Photo: Bishop Museum)

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of the surface of the earth and is comprised of thousands of islands that are scattered over a vast expanse of water with shifting winds, and strong currents. The movement of ancestral Oceanic people, or kanaka maoli, across remote Oceania was one of the most remarkable feats of open-ocean voyaging and settlement in all of human history. In the Hawaiian archipelago, the northwestern region contained the most peripheral islands that relied heavily on interaction and networking between core islands (the Main Hawaiian Islands) as a social mechanism to help reduce the possibility of extinction of their geographically isolated populations.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) were explored, colonized, and in some cases, permanently settled by Native Hawaiians in pre-contact times. Nihoa and Mokumanamana (Necker Island), the islands that are closest to the Main Hawaiian Islands, have archaeological sites which with agricultural, religious, and habitation features. Based on radiocarbon data, it’s been estimated that Nihoa and Mokumanamana could have been inhabited from 1000 A.D. to 1700 A. D. (Ref. 4). These islands pose the same dilemma as a score of other islands in Oceania, which were small targets for voyaging, and often at some distance from their nearest occupied neighbor. All of these islands were either empty at contact or abandoned, having been occupied some time previously. Due to the environmental constraints of being small, geographically isolated, and not having sufficient resources to allow self-sustainability, demographic stability (in initial and later stages of colonization) is thought to be among the main reasons why interaction was so vital to these regions.

picture of voyaging canoe
2004 cultural expedition of the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a at Nihoa Island (Photo credit: Na'alehu Anthony)

Archeology

Nihoa and Mokumanamana Islands are recognized as culturally and historically significant and are listed on the National and State Register for Historic Places. They are protected by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in accordance with the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended. Archaeological surveys on Nihoa and Mokumanamana have documented numerous cultural sites and materials (Emory 1928; Cleghorn 1988; Graves and Kikiloi, in prep.). Nihoa Island, where there is significant soil development, has over 88 cultural sites, including ceremonial, residential, and agricultural features. Mokumanamana Island has 52 cultural sites, including ceremonial and temporary habitation features. Several archaeological surveys have collected cultural artifacts from both these islands. These are curated at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Archaeological Laboratory. The range in types of cultural artifacts stored in these collections is testimony to the various uses these islands and surrounding waters served for Native Hawaiians.

Site Complex, East Palm Valley, Nihoa Island
Site Complex, East Palm Valley, Nihoa Island (Photo credit: Dave Boynton). Click here to view the large version.
Site 45 on Nihoa Island, possible habitation
Site 45 on Nihoa Island, possible habitation (Photo credit: Dave Boynton). Click here to view the large version.
Map of Nihoa Archaeological Sites
Map of Nihoa Archaeological Sites, Emory 1928. Click here to view the large version.
Map of Site 45 on Nihoa Island,  Emory 1928.
Map of Site 45 on Nihoa Island, Emory 1928. Click here to view the large version.

Bibliography

Emory, Kenneth. 1928. Archaeology of Nihoa and Necker. Bishop Museum Bulletin 53. Honolulu, Bishop Museum Press.

Cleghorn, Paul. 1988. The Settlement and Abandonment of Two Hawaiian Outposts: Nihoa and Necker Islands. Bishop Museum Occasional Papers Vol. 28, p.35-49.

Graves, Michael and Kekuewa Kikiloi. in prep. Preliminary Reconnaissance of Archaeological Sites on Nihoa Island, August 2005. Prepared for U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Honolulu.

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